Helen Haskell: Watching the Wildlife, June 15, 2017

NOAA Teacher at Sea

Helen Haskell

Aboard NOAA Ship Fairweather

June 5 – 26, 2017


Mission: Hydro Survey

Geographic Area of Cruise: Southeast Alaska – West Prince of Wales Island Hydro Survey

Date: June 15, 2017

Weather Data:

Wind: 3 knots from the west

Visibility: 6 nautical miles

Barometer: 997.6 hPa

Air temperature: 9°C

Cloud: 100% cover, 1000’


54°54.4’N 132°52.3’W

Science and Technology Log:

While Fairweather is a hydrographic research ship, responsible for collecting data for navigational charts, one of the side reports the survey crew makes is a Marine Mammal Observation Log. When a marine mammal is spotted on a survey, its location is noted, the species is identified if possible and notes about the numbers, behavior and any other observations are documented. Along with documenting sightings of these animals, the coxswains also follow protocols for minimizing disturbance and impact to these creatures.

Since joining this leg of the hydrographic research, humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangilae) have been the most numerous whale species seen. These whales that spend the summer in South-east Alaska winter mainly in Hawaii. Mating happens during the winter and the calves are born 11 months later. The calves stay with their mother for about 11 months after they are born. Individuals can grow up to 60 feet in length and live 50 years. These large grey whales have numerous barnacles that attach to their skin and filter feed as the whale travels. It is thought that the whales find shallower rocky areas to swim alongside in order to rub off the barnacles. It was in some of the shallower survey areas that I first saw humpbacks.


Harbor seals have fast become one of my favorites during my time here in Alaska. Growing to about six feet in length, the harbor seal, Phoca vitulina, have a diet of shellfish, crustaceans and fish and appear to be non-migratory, staying here year round. They are grey in color and can weigh up to 250 lbs as a mature male. Data seems to suggest that in some areas of their range in Alaska, the populations are declining but in other areas, seem stable. As the seals give birth in the summer, we’ve been fortunate enough to see seal pups too on this leg of the research.


The Northern sea otter, Enhydra lutris kenyoni, has perhaps been the most numerous marine mammal so far on this trip. Appearing small next to the seals and whales, upon reading more about them, I learned that they not small creatures, as they measure up to five feet in length and weigh up to 100 lbs. Feasting on a diet of invertebrates, such as clams and sea urchins, the sea otters are often spotted floating on their backs and are often associated with kelp beds. The otter fur trade began in the 1700’s and by 1900 populations were on the brink of extinction. Legislation has allowed the populations to rebound in most areas in the last 100 years, and they are seen regularly by survey crews and from the bridge.


Another species I saw here, up a small shallow cove, was the river otter, Lutra Canadensis. Five heads popped up in front of me and then bobbed under. Seconds later the otters were up on land running in to the trees. Seemingly fast and sleek, they were not acting like sea otters. It was not any behavior we had observed before. A little bit of research confirmed our suspicions that these were indeed river otters. Sea otters rarely come out on land, and when they do, do not move swiftly, having more flipper-like back legs, making land movement more arduous. River otters are smaller than sea otters weighing up to 35lbs and are 40-60 inches in length.


While obviously not a marine mammal, the bald eagle is pretty much a guaranteed daily sight as the surveys are being done. A friend referred to the bald eagle as an Alaskan pigeon, and while I have not experienced as many bird species or numbers of birds here as I thought I would, the eagle has been one of the main species sighted. With an estimated population of 30,000 in Alaska, more numerous here than any other state, that hasn’t always been the case. With bounties on them at the turn of the 20th century, and population reductions due to pesticides and habitat loss, especially in the lower 48 states, the bald eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus, was put on the Endangered Species List in 1967. Measures put in place both locally and nationally have been so successful that in 2007 the bald eagle was removed from the Endangered Species List.


Another species I have seen regularly but not up at close range, is the Marbled Murrelet, Brachyramphus marmoratus. These small, almost 10 inch long marine birds are in breeding plumage right now and, although they have been hard to see, due to distance and poor light conditions in the rain, are beautiful shades of brown and cinnamon. They build nests here in southeast Alaska in the mossy branches of old growth conifer trees or on the ground.

A little blurry but here are the Marbled Murrelets


Personal log

While it’s easy to get sidetracked with the mammals and birds here, there is a host of other species here that play significant roles in the food web. Kelp has been one of the organisms that I’ve seen a lot while doing the small boat surveys, and on our first completely sunny day, I got the chance to get up close and personal with the kelp from the vantage point of a kayak. The Fairweather has several kayaks that on occasion the crew uses to explore the local area. Together with NOAA Corps Junior Officer ENS Peter Siegenthaler and Hollings scholar Carly Laroche, we filed a Small Boat Plan with the bridge, stating where we were going and our anticipated return time, picked up radios, and carried the kayaks down from the top deck. It’s a little tricky to get a small kayak in the water from a large ship, but with the help of a small boat, we launched and paddled, in almost glassy water, over towards the shoreline.

FullSizeRender (1)
Me in one of the kayaks

Being even closer to the water in a shallow keel-less boat, allowed us to paddle through those kelp forests, pick up the otter-opened clamshells and explore the intertidal community much more easily. We were also able get close to some of the terrestrial species, the Sitka spruce and the other trees species growing vertically out of often steep slopes, right down to the high tide mark. We paddled along these inter-tidal edges listening to hermit thrush sing from the trees up the hillsides as we debated how logging companies actually cuts trees on such steep slopes. It was a glorious day, a rare sunny, calm day in the early summer of southeast Alaska, and perfect for paddling. This area is filled with small islands and coves, waiting to be explored, especially at low tide, when more inter-tidal life is exposed. My fingers are crossed that the weather and water conditions will allow for more explorations by kayak before I have to leave Fairweather in Kodiak.




Fact of the day: KELP

There are three species of kelp found here in southeast Alaska: bull kelp, ribbon kelp and sugar kelp. Kelp is an algae, not a plant, although it does photosynthesize. It is an essential part of the ecosystem here and many species are dependent on it.

Word of the day: Baleen

Humpbacks are a baleen whale, meaning that they have these plates, up to 600, make out of a substance called keratin in their mouths that act as filters in feeding. The keratin is referred to as baleen and is similar to our fingernails. In an earlier blog posting I held up a piece of baleen in an art store in Ketchikan. Below is a picture of baskets woven out of strips of baleen.


What is this?

(Previous post: The picture is of the sonar equipment on the bottom of the small boats).


Beth Carter, June 27, 2007

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Beth Carter
Onboard NOAA Ship Rainier
June 25 – July 7, 2007

Mission: Hydrographic Survey
Geographical Area: Gulf of Esquibel, Alaska
Date: June 27, 2007

Weather Data from Bridge 
Visibility:  6 miles
Wind direction:  034 degrees
Wind speed:  5 mph
Sea Wave Height:  none
Swell Wave Height:  none
Seawater temperature:  12.2 degrees C
Sea level pressure:  1017.2 mb
Dry Bulb Temperature: 12.2
Wet Bulb Temp:  11.7
Cloud cover, type: 8/8, stratus and cumulus
Depths: 31 fathoms

Researchers are kneeling in a sitka spruce forest as they check the computer that is collects and records tidal data on a small island in Nossuk Bay, Alaska.
Researchers are kneeling in a Sitka spruce forest as they check the computer that is collects and records tidal data on a small island in Nossuk Bay, Alaska.

Science and Technology Log 

On Tuesday afternoon, June 26, I went out with a crew of researchers to check the equipment that collects tidal data for Esquibel Bay. There are six main pieces of equipment used to collect this data: 1) a cylinder of nitrogen, 2) a hose attached to the nitrogen cylinder that emits small bubbles of nitrogen into the water, 3) a computer that collects and records data, 4) a solar collector to power the computer’s battery, 5) a  transmitter that sends the data to a satellite, and 6) the tide staff (an actual wooden staff in the water), and GPS benchmarks. The staff is set and readings taken so that the vertical measurements of the staff are linked to the benchmarks. The gage, which is officially a “tertiary” gage, is set up concurrent with a “primary” gage that has been acquiring data for over one epoch (19 years or more). Sitka, Alaska, is the site of NOAA’s primary gage, which has similar tidal characteristics to the area that we are working now. Thus, only an amplitude and phase differential must be applied to the Sitka gage to get a water level for this area.  Without the staff readings, there would be no way to tie the “bubbler” level to the ground surrounding the gage site, and thus no way to recover the actual local vertical datum (water level) relative to the gage in Sitka.

The nitrogen cylinder slowly leaks bubbles through the hose, which are released into the water. When the tide is high, there is more water and pressure above the hose which makes it more difficult for the bubbles to escape the hose. When the tide is low, there is less water above the hose, and therefore less pressure, which makes it easier for the bubbles to escape. Readings are recorded digitally every six minutes, averaged every six seconds. Staff-to-gage measurements are also recorded every six minutes whenever the site is visited, and 3 hours’ worth are recorded at  installation and removal, so that the vertical measurements of the station  are effectively “tied” to the measurements at the primary water level station at Sitka. (Good Working Question: Download data from both  stations and compare the two – are there differences? Next, compare Sitka and Ketchikan and Kodiak – are there bigger differences?).

ENS Meghan McGovern, Junior Officer of RAINIER, and Shawn Gendron, survey technician, position the tripod which will hold the transmitter to collect the GPS information needed by the RAINIER.
ENS Meghan McGovern, Junior Officer of RAINIER, and Shawn Gendron, survey technician, position the tripod which will hold the transmitter to collect the GPS information needed by the RAINIER.

For some reason, the transmitter is not emitting signals that can be read by the satellite, and therefore by the scientists at NOAA headquarters. This is why the skiff took several technicians over to check the equipment to see if it is still functioning and recording properly. They downloaded the water level data to send to headquarters via email while also setting up GPS equipment so that an ellipsoidal (GPSrelative) height can also be linked to the orthometric (gravitational) elevation determined through water level measurement, and will return to the ship and process the GPS data. The tides are important to hydrographic surveying, because obviously, the water is deeper at high tide than at low tide. The goal is to collect accurate information on tides, and then combine that with the data collected by the launches, in order to get accurate depth information.  The tide-corrected depths on the chart they want to show are relative to the mean low low water, which is the average of the lowest of daily tides taken over the last 19 years. On the Atlantic Ocean, tides are semi-diurnal. This means that there are two high tides and two low tides per 24 hours. But, on the Northeastern Pacific, tides are mixed.  See here for more details.

Today, (Wed. June 27), the crew returned to the small island to check on the HorCon station, which stands for Horizontal Controls.  The RAINIER established this water level station in April of 2007, and set into place 5 benchmarks which are tied into the international framework of benchmarks that make it possible to utilize GPS, or Global Positioning Satellites to determine one’s exact location. RAINIER’s researchers placed a receiver antenna on top of a tripod, which was positioned exactly above the center of the metal disc benchmark cemented into a rock.  The antenna receives from some of the 11 Global Positioning System satellites that orbit the earth and constantly change their relative positions. For a final position to be accurate, at least four satellites must be recorded in two different sessions of more than six hours duration separated by at least one day. They connected the cables, turned on the GPS receiver and then waited for the satellite constellation (also known as the ephemeris) to be downloaded so that all available satellites could be tracked. The first satellite was tracked around 1 hour later, and then we left the island, as the equipment was to be left in place for at least 6 hours.  When we returned 6 hours later, 8 satellites had made contact, and the recordings were noted and will be taken for evaluation onboard the ship.

Anna-Liza Villard-Howe, the Navigation Officer of the RAINIER, explained to me that the GPS measurements of benchmarks are being conducted in order to get as precise a determination of sea level as is possible, so that all the hydrographic information collected by the RAINIER can be referenced to the ellipsoid. Sea level has changed in Alaska in the recent past due to glacial rebound, which means that as the glaciers recede, the land is actually rising. Also, many large earthquakes have occurred in Alaska in the last century, which also changed the shape of some landforms and affected sea level readings. Online Sea Floor Mapping Activity Targets Kids (CED, OCS). In celebration of World Hydrography Day, NOAA’s Ocean Service  Communications and Education Division, in cooperation with NOAA’s Office  of Coast Survey, launched a new educational offering — Sea Floor Mapping —  on the National Ocean Service Education Web site. It is designed for students at the 3rd – 5th grade level, and the media-rich activity teaches young people about mapping the seafloor and why it is important.  This activity also conveys information about NOAA’s missions of discovery and service. The Sea Floor Mapping Activity is available online here.

Questions of the Day 

  1. Why are tides in the Pacific and Atlantic different?  What are the factors that affect tidal changes?
  2. Look up a tidal chart for the inlet or beach nearest to your home.  How far apart are the high and low tides?
  3. Who (which country or countries/which agencies) is responsible for the maintenance of the 11 Global Positioning Satellites that are now orbiting the earth?  If a satellite fails, would it be replaced?  By what agency?

Personal Log 

While on the tiny island, one of the officers carried a shotgun…in case we met a bear!  I’m pleased to say we didn’t encounter a bear, but did discover animal scat, and two eagle feathers. One was a tail feather – beautifully white – and we didn’t collect the feathers because it is illegal to collect eagle feathers.  We also saw 7-8 harbor seals on a rock outcropping. We tried to sneak up on them to get good photographs, but they bobbed and rocked and slipped into the water before we got very close. Also, on the island I was surprised to find many clumps of saltwort, which Eastern coast students (and my first grade class!) should recognize from the mud flat near the salt marsh.  It tastes….salty! No surprise there.

On Wednesday, there were so many white gnats that we sent the skiff back to the ship for bug repellant. They were like No-See-Ems, only we could See Em and Feel Em!  We built a small, smoky fire, which made things somewhat better.   The highlight of the day for me was kayaking after dinner with the XO (Executive Officer) of the ship, and Ian Colvert, an assistant survey technician.  We saw a rainbow and paddled through a misty rain, then sunshine…a beautiful evening.

Kim Wolke, August 8, 2006

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Kim Wolke
Onboard NOAA Ship Rainier
July 23 – August 11, 2006

Mission: Hydrographic Survey of the Shumagin Islands
Geographical Area: Alaska
Date: August 8, 2006

TAS Kim Wolke raising the American flag on the fantail of NOAA ship RAINIER
Kim Wolke raising the American flag on the fantail of NOAA ship RAINIER

Weather from the Bridge
Cloudy (CL)
  10 nautical miles (nm)
Wind Direction:
West (W)
Wind Speed:
10 knots
0-1 foot
Sea Water Temp. (
°C): 11.1
Sea Level Pressure:
1010.0 millibars (mb)
Temp. (
°C): 12.2 (air temperature)

Winding Down 

I’ve been keeping a running list of the Alaskan wildlife that I’m seeing along this excursion.  Some of the animals I’ve mentioned already are the puffins, bald eagles, Orcas, and Dall’s porpoise.  Occasionally while out in a kayak or survey boat or on a beach along the coastline I’ve also spotted harbor seals.  Their adorable little faces will emerge from the beneath the water and bob around, almost appearing at first to be kelp floating in the water.  While kayaking I’ve also seen two hauled out on rocks where they were almost mistaken for pieces of logs washed ashore.  They are very quiet and easily disturbed if you get too close.

A harbor seal (Phoca vitulina) on a rock.
A harbor seal (Phoca vitulina) on a rock.

Harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) are marine mammals most often associated with coastal waters. They periodically haul out of the water on sand and gravel beaches, reefs, sand bars, and glacial and sea ice to rest, give birth, and nurse their pups. Unlike many marine mammals, harbor seals do not make long annual migrations, however, they do move around considerably in a more localized area. At birth harbor seals weigh about 24 pounds. They gain weight rapidly during a month long suckling period. Average adults weigh 180 pounds.  Until about 5 years of age, there are approximately equal numbers of male and female harbor seals in a population. After that, mortality rates are much higher for the males, therefore female harbor seals becomes much more abundant.  Adapted to life in the sea, they can dive up to 600 feet (183 meters) and remain submerged for 20 minutes!  Some adaptations that allow for oxygen conservation in harbor seal are reduced peripheral circulation, reduced heart rate, and high levels of myoglobin (an oxygen binder). Harbor seals move under water by using their hind flippers for propulsion and their fore flippers as rudders. In Alaska harbor seals commonly eat walleye, pollock, Pacific cod, capelin, eulachon, Pacific herring, salmon, octopus, and squid.

The NOAA ship RAINIER in the distance in East Bight, Nagai Island, AK
The NOAA ship RAINIER in the distance in East Bight, Nagai Island, AK

Personal Log 

Today after all of the survey boats return we will begin our journey back to Seward, AK.  This leg of the RAINIER’S travels, as well as mine, are winding down.  All of the surveying is complete until the RAINIER leaves Seward, AK for its next leg early next week. I’ve already taken some meclizine to hopefully ward off any potential seasickness, as we will be underway for about 2 days once we take up the anchor.  It appears that with this end of surveying and the turning back of the ship there has also been a rather symbolic turn in the weather.  It has gone from incredible weather yesterday to a falling barometer, heavily cloudy skies, and a forecast calling for higher winds and waves.   I’m glad I went kayaking the past 2 days!

Jessica Schwarz, June 27, 2006

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Jessica Schwarz
Onboard NOAA Ship Rainier
June 19 – July 1, 2006

Mission: Hydrographic Survey
Geographical Area: Alaska
Date: June 27, 2006

Sonar image of a shipwreck
Sonar image of a shipwreck

Personal Log 

Just when I think I’m getting the hang of things on the ship…. I was working at the computer when I heard myself being paged over the intercom, “TAS dial 128”, “TAS dial 128”. I looked around and didn’t see a phone so I wondered up to the galley. The crew is prepared for the TAS to be confused and lost most of the time I think, so it doesn’t take long after a confused look on your face to get some help.

I was being paged because the CO wondered if I’d like to take a boat ride over to Redoubt Lake where the sockeye salmon are spawning.  I hurried down to my stateroom to grab some warm clothing and made my way to the fantail (stern of the boat) where the skiffs are tied.

Redoubt Lake is a beautiful freshwater lake that sits just above sea level on one of the nearby islands. There were several other boats anchored in the bay, one of which had two men fishing for sockeye.  The CO cast a line in as well, but I guess the salmon weren’t biting today.  On our way back, I got to drive the skiff…remember the skiffs go much faster than the survey launches. The one we were riding in today can get up to 45 knots. I didn’t drive it that fast though.

Sonar image of a sunken airplane!
Sonar image of a sunken airplane!

We saw a harbor seal poke its nose out of the water. That was really cool! I’ve seen pictures some of the crew has taken, where they are resting on land. Pretty amazing! When I came back to the ship I headed up to the plotting room where Physical Scientist Shyla Allan showed me some amazing sonar images.  I’ve included a couple in this log for everyone to see. I was very impressed by how detailed the images are!

Later on that evening, I went for another boat ride on one of RAINIER’s skiffs with ENS Megan McGovern, OS Megan Guberski, and ST Erin Campbell.  We headed back over to Redoubt Lake. We spent time watching the salmon jumping.  Pretty incredible! Tomorrow we will be underway and heading across the Gulf to Kodiak Island!  Think good thoughts of calm seas and settled stomachs for me.

ENS Megan McGovern, TAS Jessica Schwarz, and ST Erin Campbell are spending their evening on the skiff to watch the salmon jump in Redoubt Bay in Southeast Alaska.
ENS Megan McGovern, TAS Jessica Schwarz, and ST Erin Campbell are spending their evening on the skiff to watch the salmon jump in Redoubt Bay in Southeast Alaska.